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Groups meet to support social justice

Nearly 300 VOICE-Buffalo participants showed their support Sunday in Westminster Presbyterian Church for social-justice policies that enhance economic well-being and serve the needs of those who need it most.

A priority at the annual meeting of the 15-year-old, faith-based organizing project of urban and suburban congregations, advocacy organizations and labor was the extension of the "millionaires' tax" due to expire Dec. 31. The expiration has Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's support despite polls showing overwhelming opposition.

If the expiration does occur, $4.6 billion will stay in the pockets of the state's richest citizens rather than boosting state coffers for health care, education and other critical needs.

There were calls by speakers for financial aid from the county to block an expected increase in NFTA fares that would hit people of limited financial means the hardest. A sense of urgency to help inner-city youth also was expressed.

Pastor James D. Giles, president of Back to Basics Outreach Ministry, advocated for a youth transitional center that would provide at-risk youth safe refuge. The hiring of two full-time street workers to help young people deal with retaliation due to violence and other concerns also was endorsed.

Giles told of young people in desperate need of a safe haven who were forced into bad situations. That included Trevell Walker, who hung himself Oct. 12 in Erie County Holding Center after Giles said he had approached Back to Basics for help. "We could have had a place to put these young people and give them the benefit of our counsel, of our expertise, so they could live a strong and productive life," Giles said.

The Rev. Linda Heffley of Church of the Nativity called on the NFTA not to make it harder for people on the bottom of the financial order to afford public transportation.

"It is the role of government to provide public transportation as a service to its citizens, to connect people to jobs, medical care, child care and to each other," said Heffley. "I challenge the NFTA to be proactive with government policy makers and to advocate for us as customers who need your services."

A handful of city and county politicians in attendance offered to provide support for VOICE-Buffalo's priorities.

VOICE-Buffalo members also spoke of recent "victories" due to public pressure.

David Heraty of St. Joseph University Catholic Church told of improved enforcement of housing codes on slumlords in University Heights.

Members of the National Fuel Accountability Coalition said an effectively mounted campaign persuaded the Public Service Commission to compel National Fuel to add $800,000 for low-income weatherization in its rate payer-funded conservation program. The funds will be largely transferred from the utility's advertising budget.

A large screen showed members of Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope, or NOAH, meeting at the same time in Niagara Falls. Both VOICE-Buffalo and NOAH work on similar issues and are affiliated with the Gamaliel Foundation, which provides training and consultation for congregation-based community organizations.

Duane Diggs, VOICE-Buffalo president, emphasized afterward that retaining the millionaire's tax was a top priority. He said government was failing the public, and especially those most vulnerable, by not "investing in the people any more."

"If we don't start letting our voices be heard, we'll be back where we were when the robber barons were running the country in the 19th century, and" -- he said repeating a frequent refrain in the audience -- "that ain't right."